Canadian Officials Privately Admit “an Absence of Credible Scientific Evidence” That Tar Sands Are Getting Cleaner

Photos: Peter Essick, National Geographic. Edited by Treehugger.

Canada was once seen as a progressive leader on environmental issues. Today, the country is becoming an international pariah when it comes to climate change — facing fierce criticism from environmental groups and world leaders over its decision to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol and push dirty tar sands around the world.

It’s not just verbal criticism. The Europeans are currently considering a law that would label the carbon content of tar sands crude in the EU as 22% higher than conventional crude. That would discourage refiners, who have to meet 20% carbon reduction requirements by 2020, from importing the fuel.

And back in the U.S., the fierce opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline rages on, spurring a strong movement within the country against the resource.

Canadian officials are doing their best damage control, claiming that the environmental footprint of digging up tar sands is getting smaller. According to the Postmedia Network, Canada’s environment minister Peter Kent claimed at the Durban climate talks that tar sands are “a responsibly and sustainably developed resource, of which we are proud.”

But internal government briefing documents released earlier this month and reported on by Postmedia show a different kind of messaging behind the scenes. In a background memo, send to Canada’s Deputy Environment Minister Paul Boothe, officials admitted the lack of “credible information on [tar sands’] environmental performance.”

“Environment Canada also advised that the absence of scientific evidence supporting their claims was affecting the industry’s ability to raise capital from and sell into (the) foreign market,” reads the memo.

PostMedia obtained the documents through a freedom of information request:

They also noted that the regulatory shortcomings have left the industry ill-prepared to defend itself from foreign environmental policies, such as proposed climate legislation in Europe to reduce pollution from transportation fuels, as well as criticism on the international stage at events such as the global warming summit in this coastal resort town.

“National and international concern over the environmental footprint of oilsands production represents a growing threat to the economic future of the industry,” said the briefing material, sent on June 4 by Assistant Deputy Minister Michael Keenan and released to Postmedia News on Thursday evening through access to information legislation. “Governments need to provide assurance that oilsands production is environmentally responsible in order to secure the industry’s social license to operate.”

The briefing also states that Canadian officials are “committed to managing the environment in the oil sands based on science, not politics or PR.”

Earlier this summer, however, Wikileaks released a 2009 diplomatic cable from the U.S. State Department to the Canadian government on how to improve “oil sands messaging” and increase “visibility and accessibility of more positive news stories.”

With the dust-up in the U.S. over the Keystone XL pipeline, the threat over imports from the Europeans, and the overwhelming negative reaction from groups concerned about climate change, the last year has brought anything but positive news stories for the Canadians.

Perhaps that’s why Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is now focusing his attention on getting the product into China.

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17 Responses to Canadian Officials Privately Admit “an Absence of Credible Scientific Evidence” That Tar Sands Are Getting Cleaner

  1. Dan says:

    As a Canadian, I am deeply embarrassed by what is happening in Alberta’s tar sands. So are many other Canadians, but unfortunately the oil industry in Canada is extremely influential, especially with the Conservative governments in Alberta and in Ottawa.
    The article above is correct that the Canadian government is now trying to get dirty tar sands oil to Asia. However, it is unlikely to happen for the foreseeable future. The only means to get it to Asia is through the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which is being planned by Enbridge (notorious for its pipeline spills). It will not happen for a very long time, if at all, because the proposed pipeline would run from Alberta to a port on the Pacific. That means that the pipeline must cross British Columbia. British Columbia is the only province in Canada where most aboriginal land claims have not been settled, so much of the land is in dispute. Aboriginal groups are almost unanimous in opposing the pipeline. In the meantime, they will never allow it to be built until their land claims are settled, a process that will probably takes decades. The Northern Gateway pipeline is almost certainly dead on arrival.

  2. prokaryotes says:

    The 7 billion which the pipeline cost, is enough to create renewables to compensate for the energy. And you still got to export it, just it is electric.

    But it seems canada is hold hostage to the stoneage…

  3. FatherTheo says:

    I think it’s optimistic to think the issue can be decided on the basis of Aboriginal rights claims. Aboriginal activism will almost certainly play a role, but as one part of a many-pronged resistance.

    The Enbridge Pipeline is still going through a public environmental assessment, not scheduled to be over until after the next provincial election in British Columbia. There is a fair chance that there will be a change of government then, and the incoming NDP government is more likely to be susceptible to environmental matters than the present one–and even the present one is waffling about Enbridge.
    We have this beautiful waterway off our coast called the Inside Passage. The Enbridge Pipeline would bring large amounts of tanker traffic to this waterway carrying some of the ugliest crude around. I suspect this is going to be a hard political sell in British Columbia, even with oil money backing.

  4. It is fascinating how the west coast of North America is cast into a role of environmental conscience for fossil fuel export containment, given the perceived draw of Asian markets.

    The fossil giants want to move coal, tar sands oil, and/or LNG offshore from Oregon, Washington, and/or British Columbia – in addition to the rest of the great trees – not caring about the local and global costs.

    People in the center of the continent, on average, seem to turn for the perks of development – or fail to resist, in the face of overwhelming power. But there’s still a relatively thin line of people along the left edge of the continent, on average more consciously entwined with nature, who stand resiliently to block the path for some of this escalating pillage.

    Long may we hold.

  5. Peter Mizla says:

    Canada has decided to join its southern neighbor to the dark side.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This is what you get when you elect a Rightwing regime. The Right has become, inexorably, more vicious, malicious, cruel, and environmentally destructive as the years go by. The experience in Austr-failure is exemplary. By the mid-1980s there had been a number of ecological victories and environmental consciousness was growing. Unfortunately, the pro-business Right was determined to reverse that situation, in alliance with the MSM, the Murdoch Evil Empire in particular.They launched a concerted campaign of denigration and vilification against environmentalists and in denial of every single ecological crisis.
    The result was the election of hard Right ideologues like John Howard, who made no secret of their hatred of ‘greenies’. Real, visceral, hate and contempt, for getting in the way of ‘development’. It’s been all backwards to the future since then, and each new generation of Rightwing reactionaries is more extreme than the one before.
    Of course, at election time, to ensure vote maximisation, they play all this down, and pretend to just love the natural world, and promise to look after it. However, as the state regimes in New South Wales and Victoria have shown (like the Tories in the UK) these were cynical lies, and once in power its death to solar and wind energy, full steam ahead for coal and gas fracking, clear-felling of remnant old growth forests and a total attack on all environmental progress painstakingly made over the last fifty years, even destroying policies introduced by their own parties.
    I’d say that the reasons for the growing extremism are many and varied. It’s a form of denial, of wishing disaster away by assertive action, to prove human, ego-driven mastery over nature. It’s service to money power, of course, with Big Business having no other raison d’etre but profit maximisation. It is, also, simply that craving of the psychopath for greater and greater stimulation of their perverted desires, to dominate, to destroy (this is vital, as a type of magical attempt to assert mastery over life and death)and to humiliate the disempowered. The old stimuluses become unrewarding after a while, through habituation, so even greater exercises of power and will are needed to slake their appetites. They will not, ever, ‘see the light’ and change to nice, life-preserving, creatures. Even now, festering in some University student group, or working for a PR firm, or in some Rightwing think-tank, the ‘next Harper’, the ‘next Cameron’ or ‘next Obama’ is being moulded for the work needed to maintain the global dominance of ‘Them’, the 0.01%, into the future, however abbreviated that will be.

  7. I agree that Enbridge’s “Northern Gateway Pipeline to our Atmosphere” is in trouble because of First Nations and others.

    Unfortunately there are many other routes that Big Tar is pushing through BC. One of them, Kinder Morgan’s “TransMountain Pipeline to our Atmosphere” already exists and dumps 300,000 barrels a day down to Vancouver Harbour. That one existing pipeline carries dirty Alberta oil with a wells-to-wheels CO2 impact of 52 MtCO2 per year.

    For comparison that is equal to all fossil fuel emissions from everything in all of BC.

    Of course this isn’t nearly enough for the exploding “carbon bomb” that Big Tar is trying to set off in our atmosphere. The tar sands expansion plans require another pipeline of this size to be built every 18 months for decades! They will need 15 more pipelines of this size by 2035 to move the increase in tar sands oil to the coast for export. USA is full up already.

    Sure enough Kinder Morgan has plans to more than double the flow of TransMountain into Vancouver. That will push the flow to 700,000 barrels and the CO2 damage to 125 MtCO2 per year.

    For perspective on that, the increase is 75 MtCO2. BC citizens could literally shut down their entire economy, remove every vehicle from the road, seas and air, turn off the heat and close every industry and business and they wouldn’t cut emissions by that much. Just this one “expansion” will wipe out all climate efforts by all BC people forever.

    And Big Tar needs a new one of these pipes every couple years for decades. Welcome to an open assault on our future.

    Finally, in an interesting reversal, Kinder Morgan is an American company pushing a tar sands pipeline across Canadian soil.

    They want to radically expand this via TMX2 & TMX3 additions so that the output grows to 700,000 barrels a day.

  8. But renewables won’t bring insane profits to an uber-elite while trashing our kids’ future.

    Renewable only create a bunch of blue collar jobs, low profits and hope. What’s the point of that?

  9. Industry and government figures now clearly show the tar sands are getting much dirtier to produce per barrel in recent years.

    The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) admits that the tar sands have gotten 16% dirtier recently. Their “Facts on the Oil Sands 2010” booklet brags that they reduced emissions intensity by 39 per cent since 1990. But in the next edition, they very quietly lowered that to just 29 per cent. Oops. That is 16% dirtier according to the industry ads!

    Want more confirmation? The industry trade journal CanOils reported that for 2009: “Per barrel emissions remain higher than 5 years ago.” Their chart showed CO2 production emissions per barrel, for both integrated and in situ, are around 20 per cent dirtier than five years ago.

    And CBC reporter the other day said that the latest government of Canada numbers show an 18% increase in CO2 per barrel in recent years.

    Hey major media — when the industry’s own ads say they are getting much dirtier per barrel it is time to start reporting this basic fact.

    Thanks once again to Climate Progress for continuing to get it right on climate. So few voices of honesty left when it comes to fossil fuel damages

  10. To borrow a phrase from Steven Weinberg: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes fossil fueled greed”

    And just what will Canadians do with their international standing is in taters and their economy only a petro-zombie shell…when climate chaos forces the world to abandon their Big Tar products for good? The laws of physics guarantee the carbon bubble is going to pop sooner or later.

    The Big Tar profiteers will just jet set to one of their many villas in some far flung nation that did the right thing and still has a functional post-carbon economy. But the rest of us???

  11. Peter W says:

    prokaryotes Canada for the most part is held hostage to rich American interests. As much as Americans prefer to spin this as bad Canada, if you look a little deeper you will find a lot of the puppet masters are Americans.

    75% of the oil from the Tar Sands goes to the U.S., eastern Canada doesn’t get any of it. Harper has learned many of his tricks from the GOP/Bush crew. Frank Luntz has been giving Harper PR tips for years.

    The more you dig, the more you realize that Harper and his band of merry men are just easily manipulated pawns.

  12. Peter W says:

    I think we all need to take a lesson from Pierre Trudeau’s son. Liberal MP Justin Trudeau got in trouble last week by calling Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent “a piece of s***. It’s about time we stopped being nice. It isn’t working.

  13. RobLL says:

    Canada has always allowed its big companies, especially those related to extraction, pretty much free rein to do as they wish.

  14. Barry ask “But the rest of us???”

    The rest of us will have to pay with our taxes to clean up the gigantic tailings ponds and general mess in northern Alberta. Because you know that the minute the Tar Sands are no longer profitable, oil companies will close up shop, lay off their workers and the clean up will be left to us.

  15. Jim Pettit says:

    Just as geologists and paleontologists can point at the Chicxulub crater in Mexico as Ground Zero for the mass extinction at the K-T boundary, so too may future anthropologists point at the massive Alberta Tar Sands scars as the epicenter of the demise of our own civilization.

    It’s sad and nearly unfathomable to realize just how anti-environment the Canadian government has become in such a short time. I remember not too many years ago looking north with admiration–and maybe a bit of jealousy–at how all Canadians appeared to work together to protect and conserve their awesome natural resources. But now, it seems as if the dark spirit of profit-motivated conservatism has suddenly taken deep root there and is spreading like malignant kudzu, engulfing everything and everyone. My only hope–though it’s not much of one, I must admit–is that clear-thinking minds up north will eventually prevail and do something to stop this enveloping sickness.

    This raging pandemic of profit must stop, and soon.

  16. John McCormick says:

    Jim, it’s not all about profit. It is also about us Americans driving our 300 million cars everyday, all the time. Day and night traffic in Northern VA is becoming legend. Any time of day, the beltway traffic around DC looks like peak commuter traffic. I’m sure any big city resident can say the same.

    I’ll amend your comment:

    “This raging pandemic of ‘needless driving’ must stop, and soon.

  17. Jim Pettit says:

    Oh, nobody is denying that we could do a whole lot more in the name of conservation; we Americans need to–indeed, will be all but forced to–break our drive everywhere in our own cars by our own selves habit. But there are certainly more earth-friendly ways of meeting current demand than wantonly grinding thousands of square miles of Canadian wilderness into powder while hyperinflating the skies with CO2 and perma-polluting dozens of pristine rivers. The Syncrudes and Suncors and Shells of the world can do better, and should be made to do so by the politicians who’ve been handed the reins.